Musings on My Own Incompetence

Mountain (b&w)

My back hurts. I sit with the laptop resting on my knees, and all I can think about is how much my back hurts. And the second toe on my left foot feels numb and tingly.

I should write but the world impinges. Or perhaps it’s not the world I’m in so much as the world that’s in me that sets up obstacles to the work I claim to want to do, but seem so often incapable of pulling off.

I know the rules about showing up and getting to it. But no matter how often I remind myself of them, I often can’t quite manage to do it. Why is that?

I’d like to say that I’ve figured it out, which is why I’ve determined to set down that hard-won wisdom here. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure why I can’t always seem to do what I know I need to do, what I say I reallywant to do. So I’m writing this morning not because I’ve discovered some truth, but because I hope that the process of writing will help me suss out what truth there is to be had. (I fear you’ll find these musings merely an exercise in self-indulgence, but when I lower my bucket into the well, this is what I come up with.)

I don’t know why I go through these huge swings, arcing between focused motivation and fuzzy lethargy. I do know that I’m a strong starter, an idea person, but I’m often a bad sustainer. I don’t want to sell myself short and give you, dear reader, the idea that I’m all talk and no show. I can get things done. I have a pretty good reputation for doing stuff that I say I’ll do. But often, I lose interest at some point and want to move on to the next thing.

I can write a book—not effortlessly, but with the motivational momentum necessary to do the job, and do it passably well. But writing the next book … that’s a tough one. (The prospect of admitting that for you to read sends cold stabs of fear through my chest.)

Man, my back hurts. And my mouth is dry. I think I need something to drink. (See how easily it happens?)

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Knowledge of Injustice Without Action Makes You Part of the Problem

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALet us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back — enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.

In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”

The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.

However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.

But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.

Then one day, you’re having a cookout at your house with the bounty harvested from the commons. You’ve invited over a friend, who just happens to be a surveyor. She’s interested by the layout of the neighborhood, and the almost perfect solution of a commons. She thinks this is a great idea.

On her way to the bathroom, however, your surveyor friend happens by an antique survey map of the neighborhood hanging in your study. She begins to inspect it closely, as supper is being prepared. As she looks, she notices that the commons isn’t really a commons at all. In fact, the land that the neighborhood has been using freely to supplement each one’s income is actually a tract that legally belongs to the house with the swampy land.

You immediately realize the implications of this discovery: For years, because of a longstanding tradition, everyone in the neighborhood has been fattening their pocketbooks at the expense of the family that lives on swampy land. In other words, you realize that you’ve been getting rich on the back of the neighbor who can least afford it. You have an epiphany: Your neighbor’s family has been starving, while the rest of the neighborhood has taken the proceeds for itself — the proceeds that rightfully belong to the starving family.

You feel awful. But it was tradition. Nobody knew any better. That you probably should have been more compassionate toward your neighbor all along is beside the point. Now you know.

The moral question is: Having finally realized that you’ve been treating your neighbor’s family unjustly all these years, what are you going to do about it?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

Leg cast

It’s hard to be patient when things look like they’re falling apart.

Which impatience is why congregations in decline start thrashing about, running away from anything new at the first sign of failure—and oftentimes before. That which is new appears threatening in virtue of nothing more menacing than its newness.

So, here’s what happens. A congregation sets out to do the difficult work of transformation—not just a cosmetic tweak here or there, but total tear-out-the-walls-and-change-the-footprint kind of reclamation project. At first, people are excited.

“We’ve been saying we needed to do this for a long time. It feels good to finally get started.”

Everyone’s been told that this is a long, arduous journey, and that they’d better gird up their loins.

“We know. The journey of a thousand miles … and all that stuff.”

But working without measurable results—which, in this case, usually means new young families, in which at least one spouse is a doctor or lawyer—taxes the patience. People have a difficult time laboring in the absence of, what appears to them, as tangible benefits.

The natives get restless.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Jesus Is the Worst Thing to Happen to Christianity in Awhile

TractJesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while.

Want to know how I know?

I got another anonymous letter sent to me today. Actually, it wasn’t a letter at all; it was a tract. Turns out, they still make those. (Which makes sense, because who hasn’t been confronted by a second rate black and white cartoon carrying the grim warning of impending damnation, then fallen down in a tangle of wayward limbs and humiliated repentance?)

The title of this magisterial work of theology? Reverend Wonderful.

In it our protagonist, the sardonically named, Rev. Wonderful (Haha!, Get it? ’Cause he’s really not “wonderful?”) enjoys the untempered adulation of the adoring masses. He’s introduced as the “most loved man in America.”

So what makes the “Reverend” so “Wonderful,” so nationally beloved and respected? He’s theologically liberal, of course. (Because, you know, all the famous preachers are liberals. They all have megachurches and television empires and political machines.)

Unfortunately, though, it’s precisely his theological liberalism that leads God to run Rev.’s sorry butt back through the pearly gates and cast him “into the lake of fire forever.”

So, you might be wondering just what is this liberal poltroon’s great sin against God and the Christianity on behalf of which this tract offers its voice? What has consigned the Reverend to eternal perdition? Why, it’s his preaching, of course. Just listen to the evil spewing from his mouth:

“Yes, God cares about souls, but He [sic] also cares about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy! We must UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry” [emphasis in the original].

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Millennials and the Key to Mainline Decline

Man with monkeyWell, it appears that we’ve gotten Millennials (that generation born 1980-2000) wrong.

Jean Twenge has famously tried to make the case that Millennials are lazier and more selfish than previous generations. In books like Generation Me andThe Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge has argued that today’s young people have grown up coddled, having been nurtured with an inflated sense of self-worth in an “every-kid-gets-a-soccer-trophy” world.

Dr. Twenge’s research, though, has been controversial among social scientists for some time. Up until recently the counterargument to Twenge’s assertion of Millennial narcissism centered on the idea that Millennials, far from being more narcissistic than their generational forebears, are just motivated by different things. What has sometimes been taken as laziness or a lack of ambition in the workplace is instead a refusal to chase money in favor of looking for happiness and flexibility.

However, it turns out that even happiness isn’t exactly the right description of what drives Millennials in their career choices. In an article in The the New York Times Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker argue that happiness isn’t a precise enough explanation of what Millennials seek. Instead, the data show that “Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning.”

Meaning, of course, is a slippery word, since the range of its possible significance seems so personal. Smith and Aaker, however, identify meaning as present in those whose “lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

This got me to thinking about the church.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Trashing Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do

Trashing Jesus

Social Media Rorschach Test

I took part in a social media Rorschach Test yesterday.

Before you get your knickers irremediably twisted, you need to pay attention to what’s at stake, because it would be altogether too easy and not particularly profitable to get sidetracked on the Jesus trashing.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out an antebellum mansion the church owns, preparing it for renovation—through a H.U.D. grant—to low cost senior housing, we came across a giant reproduction of Warner Sallman’s iconic, Head of Christ. In the process of trying to break the habit of saving-everything-because-you-never-know-when-Sunday-School-curriculum-from-the 1940s-might-be-useful-again, we threw out a bunch of stuff.Hence this picture of me tossing out a faded, but much beloved, Protestant icon.

What’s interesting, however, is not that we threw out a picture that many people consider something like sacred—we threw out some torn study bibles from the 1930s, too, which made some people duck for fear of lightning—but that it got photographed and posted to social media, where people reacted to it.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Two Reasons the Next Thing You Do Probably Won’t Kill Your Congregation


I sometimes feel as though I couldn’t take one more crisis. At those times I feel like if I get one more phone call telling me something is going wrong with one of my kids at school, or with a disgruntled parishioner, or the checking account is unexpectedly overdrawn that I’ll … I don’t know. I guess I feel like I won’t be able to withstand another thing.

The only thing I can think to call it is “feeling thin”—stretched to the point of breaking.

When I feel thin, the whole world seems to conspire against me. I can’t get out of the house on time to get to work or take the kids to school. I can’t find socks in a house when I know I have at least thirty pairs. The oil light flashes. The dog develops strange looking spots. I forget to schedule a meeting I said I’d be responsible for.

Feeling thin leaves me convinced that I have no business owning a house or a car, that I’m in way over my head as a parent, and that I’m only temporarily fooling people at my job into thinking that I know what I’m doing—but a day of reckoning is coming soon. That’s right. The jig will be up shortly, and everybody will finally see me for the fraud that, in my worst moments, I fear that I am. I think about how old I am, and how many more years I can reasonably hope to stick around, and I wonder if I can make it to the finish line without coming undone.

Feeling thin.

Ever feel like that?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why the Church We Live in Isn’t the Church We Think We Live in

IBM Selectric

Newsflash: Technology Changes!

In the book I spend some time talking about disruption theory and disruptive innovation, detailing the fall of the telegraph. I talk about, what I take to be, the inevitability of disruptive change–technological and otherwise. So, it should come as no surprise that I might lead with the commonplace, “Technology Changes!”

Ok. So, I know everybody is already aware that technology is constantly changing, being persistently threatened by new innovations. Witness the rise and fall of the compact disc, the cellular pager, or whatever particular iteration of the new game console that threatens to harden the commercial arteries at Walmart during the Christmas season.

Moreover, the rate of technological change is rapidly approaching geometric proportions. Moore’s Law of computer hardware, for example, states that the number of transistors that can be fitted onto an integrated circuit doubles every X number of months (18–24–depending on who you’re asking). The practical upshot of Moore’s Law, from a consumer perspective, is a description of the reason that the shiny new gewgaw you just bought will be obsolete by the time you get it home.

But here’s a little wrinkle that might have escaped your attention: Not only does technology change at breakneck speed, but the knowledge necessary to produce technological change also changes at breakneck speed.

“Man, you are full of great information—and by ‘great,’ I mean ‘painfully obvious.’”

Stay with me for a moment because this last proposition drastically alters more than the technical know-how necessary to produce iPads. The rate at which knowledge changes, prompted by technological innovation, completely reshuffles our relationship to our vocations–even those beyond the world of technological design and production.

For most of history, people learned a vocation—most often by apprenticeship of a formal or informal nature. Whether or not the economic environment for a particular kind of work was stable, the kind of knowledge one needed to do the work was stable.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Looking Outward: Declining Congregations Need to Start Asking a Different Set of Questions


I have often thought, and sometimes said, that when I’m writing regularly, everything seems worth writing about. But when I’m writing only when I get the “urge,” nothing seems worth writing about.

When I’ve reoriented my schedule around writing, I find it odd how often things present themselves to me as inspiration for a post or an article, almost like tiny little gifts from the muse. Something one of my kids says. An odd choice of words by a newscaster. An infuriating bit of logic by a politician. Some craziness on Facebook or Twitter. Virtually anything can get the gears spinning.

On the other hand, when I’m not remaining diligent about managing my writing life, it seems that events have to hit me square between the eyes before I notice them as as things upon which it is worth remarking. Of course, this kind of “stuck” is its own disincentive to writing; it’s an appeal to the distractions to “please come take my attention, since I can’t seem to get it to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m convinced that what we call “writer’s block” is simply getting out of the habit of writing regularly, which means that the ideas dry up, which means that you can’t write (because you have no ideas), which means that ideas have almost no chance at penetrating the thickening shell of non-writing, which means … It’s its own kind of literary vortex, from which escape seems almost impossible.

Why is that? I think it has something to do with awareness. Have you ever watched Jeopardy, and the librarian from Altoona says, “I’ll take literary terms for $1,000, Alex?”

Then Alex says, “The answer is “synecdoche.”

And our librarian friend pipes in with “What is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!

And you say to yourself, “You know, I’ve never heard that term before in my life.”

But next morning, as you’re poring over the New York Times book review, you see synecdoche in two different articles.

And when you come home from work, you’re fifteen year-old is sprawled out on the couch with five books, two empty cans of Dr. Pepper, and a pile of shredded candy wrappers. You say, “What you doing?”

The mumbled reply comes back, “English.”

“What are you studying in English?”

The fifteen year-old looks up casually and says, “Synecdoche,” like what elsewould he be studying?

And your spouse says, “Yeah, I hated synecdoche. I always got it confused with metonymy.”

The fifteen year-old nods sagely and says, “Oh man, I know what you mean. I hate that!”

And you look at your family like they’re pod people, alien replacements for the (mostly) normal folks whose stuff you’re always tripping over on the way to your Captain of the Universe Chair in the family room.

That ever happen to you?

I know. It’s kind of freaky. Not just the pod people thing—the sudden multiple appearances in your life of a word you’d never heard of before.

The thing is, “synecdoche” didn’t just spring up from nowhere to wreak havoc on your self-confidence; it’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it. Your attention gets refocused, and all of a sudden you start seeing things you never saw before, hearing things you are certain have never crossed your path before.

That sort of awareness adjustment happens to churches too.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

7 Things to Remember after Reading the Latest Crappy Membership Numbers in the Yearbook

mainliners cover final (front)Holy Crap! It’s All Falling Apart!

I received my copy of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory yesterday morning. After lunch I picked it up, as I always do upon first receiving it, to look at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church’s entry—just to make sure, you know, that they got everything right. It’s not like the folks who put the Yearbook together have ever gotten itwrong (at least with regard to the congregation’s I’ve been involved in). But it’s a habit. So I looked.

Sure enough, our information had landed in this big fat book just the way we’d sent it. But after taking a look at DBCC’s entry, I glanced around at the other churches in Louisville. Then, I looked for my friends’ congregations. I looked for congregations I used to serve. Habit.

Then I started noticing something that hadn’t really ever caught my attention. I realized that I was looking at, what at least struck me as an inordinately high number of ellipses where numbers are supposed to be.Total Membership: … ; Participating Membership: … ; Average Worship Attendance: … ; Local Operating Receipts: … —well, you get the picture. Nothing. No report.

So, I started going through region by region, just glancing. Same thing; which is to say, an awful lot of nothing. And I felt the dark edges of panic curling at the edges of my consciousness.

Then I started focusing on Local Operating Receipts (i.e., the amount of money a congregation has received to pay for things like salaries, programming, maintenance, utilities, insurance—that sort of thing). And in the places where there were actual numbers, and not just dots, I realized how many congregations are getting by on relatively little money, given all those financial responsibilities I just named.

Then the panic really started to crowd my mind. What about all those young ministers—seminarians and recent graduates? Where are they going to go?

What about my friends who are looking to move to another church, most of them because they have to for one reason or another? Where are they going to go?

And then I thought, “What if DBCC gets really ticked at me, or just gets tired of my sarcasm and flippancy, figures they’ve heard enough of my dog and pony show? Where would I go?”

A sudden cloudburst outside my office window put an exclamation point on—what had already become—a grim afternoon.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .